Update: More news on the steamer Planter

An update on a story I first posted earlier this month, from the Greenville [S.C.] News:

Clues found about Civil War ship commandeered by slave on S.C. coast

Greenville — The remains of a ship that was commandeered in Charleston harbor by an enslaved black man during the Civil War and used as an escape vehicle may have been discovered off the South Carolina coast, according to a historian with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Officials are not releasing details, but NOAA plans to issue a report and unveil historical markers on May 12, the 152nd anniversary of the little-known episode.

They said they don’t want to announce the location because it’s in an environmentally sensitive area.

But “we can say we’re pretty sure we know where it is,” said Bruce Terrell, senior historian and archeologist for the NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries’ Maritime Heritage Program and lead author of the report.

The ship, called the Planter, sunk off Cape Romain in northern Charleston County on March 25, 1876, nearly 14 years after a slave named Robert Smalls absconded with it, Terrell said.

Gordon Watts of North Carolina-based Tidewater Atlantic Research Inc., working with NOAA on the project, said he found the likely remains of Planter using a scanning sonar and a magnetometer.

Unfortunately, it’s buried under 10-12 feet of sand and an equal amount of water, he said.

“We have probed down. We know there’s wood there and we know there’s metal there, but we don’t know absolutely whether it is or is not the Planter,” he said.

It would take finding some specific parts of the ship or other artifacts to make a positive identification, he said.

The South Carolina Institute of Archeology and Anthropology is responsible for shipwrecks and other underwater archaeological sites in state waters, according to Jim Spirek, state underwater archaeologist.

Because of the expensive “industrial-style” work that would be required to excavate it, the institute doesn’t have any immediate plans to dig, unless the site is threatened by environmental degregation, he said. But it plans to monitor it because of the potential historical significance, he said.

“The Planter is emblematic of the efforts by enslaved African Americans to not only escape slavery, but also to pay for this freedom by joining the fight against the Confederacy, much like the Planter was turned against its former owners and transformed into a Union gunboat,” Spirek said.

NOAA hopes the find will spark an interest in history and archeology among young African Americans as part of a project called Voyage to Discovery.

The story of Smalls’ daring deed is inspirational in itself, Terrell said. In the early morning hours of May 13, 1862, Smalls, then 23, took control of the transport steamer with a few other black crewmembers. He put his wife and children aboard and headed out to sea, according to the Voyage to Discovery account.

Smalls, already skilled as a pilot, guided the craft safely through Confederate defenses and made it to the Union blockade. There, he surrendered the vessel and gave valuable intelligence about the rebel military plans, codes and fortifications.

He was hailed as a hero in the Northern press. He became a militia general and captain of the ship he had escaped in — and went on to serve five terms in Congress. After all of that, he returned to his hometown of Beaufort, S.C., and bought the house that had been owned by his former master, where he lived out his years. And his story — like the ship he commandeered — quietly slipped into obscurity. (Original article here)

I remain optimistic but guarded.   There are a lot of shipwrecks off the South Carolina coast. As Mr. Terrell points out, absolute proof requires identification by way of artifacts or such.  But given the authorities who are backing this claim, pretty good chance that is the Planter.  And what a find that would be.

“I have tried them … and have found them very serviceable.”: Hale’s Rockets over Charleston

In my opinion, Brigadier-General Alexander Schimmelfennig’s Civil War career is unfairly marked by his Gettysburg experience.  In the Gettysburg-centric view of the Civil War, he is best known for hiding with the hogs behind the Garlach House while the battle raged. But while not ranking as one of the war’s great generals, Schimmelfennig’s war experience offers more substance than just those three days in July, 1863.

On this day (April 18) in 1864, Schimmelfennig, commanding the garrison on Morris and Folly Islands, reported positive results from trials of Hale’s War Rockets:

Headquarters Northern District,
Folly Island, S.C., April 18, 1864.
Lieut. Col. E. W. Smith,

Assistant Adjutant-General, Dept. of the South:

Colonel: I have the honor to report that I have tried Hale’s war rockets in regard to their correctness of flight, power of penetration, and the best methods of handling and discharging them. I have tried them against targets and against the enemy and have found them very serviceable. I have armed all the outer forts in which I did not wish to expose artillery with these rockets. I have organized a common rocket battery (the men are instructed and drilled), and am now organizing a boat rocket battery to accompany expeditions, &c. I regret to say that there are but 700 rockets on hand, and that they are of the large size (3¼-inch, nearly 32 pounds weight), which are less serviceable than the smaller ones. I beg that the major-general commanding will instruct his ordnance officer to obtain without delay for this district:

First. Three thousand 2¼-inch Hale’s rockets, old construction, with rotation holes in the rear end and a 4-second fuse. With these I require no stands.

Second. One thousand 3 1/4-inch rockets, with 10 stands.

A. Schimmelfennig,
Brigadier-General, Commanding District.

Earlier, I posted a report from the Confederate side, discussing the trials directly against their picket line and some observations of the rockets themselves.  The sizes mentioned by Schimmelfennig correspond to the Ordnance Manual’s 2- and 3-inch rockets, however he was citing the outside diameter of the projectile while the manual used the inside diameter.  The British inventor of this rocket, William Hale, offered several variations of the exhaust vent arrangements as he worked to perfect the weapon.  In A Course of Instruction in Ordnance and Gunnery, James G. Benton offered this diagram of the rocket:


This diagram resembles the description offered by Major Edward Manigault on April 16, 1864.  But with so many variations with Hale’s rockets, I’m not going to call that a positive identification.

The Ordnance Manual of 1862 listed the following particulars for the 3-inch rocket:

  • Whole length of the rocket – 16.9 inches
  • Length of finished case – 14.2 inches
  • Exterior diameter of case – 3.25 inches
  • Interior diameter of case – 3 inches
  • Weight of rocket, complete – 14 pounds

I suspect “weight complete” did not include the propellant or explosive charges.  And adding those two would increase the weight closer to the 32 pounds mentioned by Schimmelfennig.

The stands used for these rockets was a simple setup, almost flimsy looking.  A surviving example in good condition appeared for sale on an antique vendor website recently:


I think any reader who has “experimented” with bottle rockets will understand the principle here.  Benton credited the 2-inch rocket with a range of 1,760 yards, and the 3-inch with 2,200 yards.

The primary advantage of the rockets lay in their light weight and ease of employment.  As Schimmelfennig noted, the “rocketeers” might setup very close to Confederate lines with little preparation.  Furthermore, the rockets were equally at home afloat.  Mounted in small boats, the rockets could be floated well forward into the creeks and marshes in front of James Island.  Other advantages often cited include the psychological impacts.  But such “shock and awe” effects were mostly nullified after the first employment.  The rockets offered ofter tactical advantages also, namely rapidity of fire and lack of recoil.

The main disadvantage of Hale’s War Rockets, as with most unguided rockets, was accuracy.  Too many variables affected the projectile’s path of flight.  Slight variations in the exhaust might send the rocket sailing off course.  Winds played against the rocket’s flight path, and required more adjustment than conventional artillery.  And of course in the days prior to smokeless powder, the exhaust trail of the rockets left a pointer to the battery’s location.

Schimmelfennig mentions forming a rocket battery (and boat rocket battery!) to operate these weapons.  That unit was Company G, 74th Pennsylvania Infantry.  A good writeup on the company’s use of the rockets is on Bret Coulson’s website (part 1 and part 2).  The company employed the rockets during their stay, then trained replacements when the regiment returned north to the defenses of Washington later in 1864.

Rockets, submarines, balloons, mines, and ironclads… the Charleston siege was a showcase of 1860′s military technology.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 60-1.)

Wainwright’s Diary, April 17, 1864:

Colonel Charles S. Wainwright offered a short diary entry for April 17, 1864.  As his custom, he began with the weather:

April 17, Sunday. We have had another wet spell since Friday; yesterday it rained steadily. The spring is more backward and colder than it was at this time last year; much as in 1862. I trust we are not going to have a whole summer of rain as we had then….

Those living in Virginia today might relate.  Since Monday evening, the weather’s been almost wintery cold, with frost warnings.  Though with perhaps less rain.  But close enough for Mother Nature’s 150th.

On Friday I got the order assigning the battery of heavy artillery to my command. They have had terribly bad weather to get their camp in order, which has come very hard on them as over half the men are recruits, and the rest have always been accustomed to garrison duty. The Fourth New York Heavy was originally commanded by a brother of General [Abner] Doubleday, who I believe proved to be worthless; then de Russy was colonel and now Tidball; the two last ought to have made a good regiment of it. They look very much like rats drowned out of their holes as I pass the camp….

The “battery” was according to the organizational tables actually a battalion.  Specifically 2nd Battalion, 4th New York Heavy Artillery under Major William Arthur.  The battalion consisted of Companies D, H, K, and E.  In their regimental history, the chapter detailing these assignments in the Army of the Potomac carries the title “Good-bye, Cannon.”  As Brigadier-General Henry Hunt had requested earlier in the winter, the 2nd Battalion was assigned to support the field batteries providing details for guard and other duties. They brought no heavy artillery pieces of their own to Wainwright’s brigade.

The battalion reported to Wainwright on April 15, and “The tents were pitched in an orchard near an old house occupied by an elderly lady and her daughter, also by the Brigade Commissary.”

In this picture of the 4th New York Heavy Artillery’s camp at Fort Marcy, Virginia, William Arthur is seated under the tent fly at the right:

William was the brother of President Chester A. Arthur.

(Citations from Charles S. Wainwright, A Diary of Battle: The Personal Journals of Colonel Charles S. Wainwright, 1861-1865, edited by Allan Nevins, New York: Da Capo Press, 1998, page 342; Hyland C. Kirk, Heavy Guns and Light; A History of the 4th New York Heavy Artillery, New York: C.T. Dillingham, 1890, page 145.)